“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Ronald Reagan famously – or infamously – offered the quip during a presidential press conference in August 1986.
Perhaps paradoxically, Reagan invoked the maxim at the top of an explanation of what his administration would continue doing to help American farmers through some hard times they were facing. The problems were largely brought on, he said, by “government-imposed embargoes and inflation” and “long history of conflicting and haphazard policies.”
“Our ultimate goal,” Reagan said, “is economic independence for agriculture … [b]ut until we make that transition, the government must act compassionately and responsibly.”
Powerful leaders frequently invoke “exigent circumstances” to justify actions against stated principle. Reagan had a knack for making it sound good, even consistent. The ultimate goal remains fixed, but in pursuing it, there will be challenges along the way that call for all sorts of responses. There will also be run-of-the-mill problems to face and issues that arise. They will require address by the means available.
The art of governing is the art of the possible, in short. That’s true, but it doesn’t say much about whether this or that decision is sound policy or even minimally sane.
In any case, the quip from Reagan came up in reading recently and reminded me of another I once heard from a long-serving Vatican hand and inveterate wag, who told me he thought the formula for the imposition of the red hat should be changed to say: “Ambition ought not be rewarded—but in your case, I’ll make an exception.”
That’s a funny line, and probably came to mind because of the upcoming consistory in which Pope Francis will put the red hat on twenty-one new heads.
If memory serves, I first heard the remark fairly early in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, whose turn in office was mostly of the reigning rather than of the ruling sort. One notable exception to that assessment, even if only a partial exception, is Benedict’s short-lived liberalization of liturgical law and practice throughout the Latin Church.
Pope Francis – the liberalizing reformer, we’re constantly told – quashed Benedict’s liberalizing reform with alacrity approaching ruthlessness, but that isn’t exactly what makes Benedict’s reform a partial exception.
There were plenty of steps Benedict XVI could have taken to ensure that bishops implemented his liturgical reform, and plenty of others he might have taken to ensure that a successor would have a more difficult time than Francis had – on paper, at least – in rolling it back.
Benedict, however, was not a heavy-handed fellow. He did not really understand administration – he admitted as much in his 1993 autobiography, Milestones – and liked it less. He governed weakly, when he governed at all.
Reputation and reality
When he was just plain Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the fellow who would become Benedict XVI had a reputation in the secular and mainstream press as well as in some Catholic circles, for being a fierce and relentless enforcer of doctrine unafraid to censure theologians and willing – even eager – to quash theological dialogue he didn’t like.
The characterization was misguided at best, deliberately misrepresentative at worst.
The politicization of academic life in the bottom half of the 1960s shocked and appalled Prof. Joseph Ratzinger, for whom the infighting and backbiting and ideological gamesmanship in academic theological circles were fairly traumatic.
Prof. Ratzinger really believed in the university as a place for the free exchange of ideas. He hated the notion of officially enforced orthodoxy beyond the bare minimum necessary to maintain “truth in advertising” – to put it crassly – which, as a practical matter, really only required that people teaching Catholic theology be able to recite the Nicene Creed without fudging or crossing fingers.
When Pope St. John Paul II brought then-Cardinal Ratzinger to Rome from Munich, it was mostly because JPII needed someone on whom he could rely to keep his own public output unambiguously orthodox. When it came to the work of doctrinal oversight, Ratzinger was JPII’s man precisely because the philosopher-pope knew the Bavarian don would aim small and be reluctant to pull the trigger.
In any case, Ratzinger did his duty, but it was Pope St. John Paul II who signed off on the actions, and in whose name Ratzinger acted when he did act. When Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, one of the first big news-making things he did was to invite his old frenemy, Prof. Fr. Hans Kung, to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.
As far as public perception and media narrative are concerned, however, it did not matter. It still doesn’t, mostly.
Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue
Pope Francis, for his part, enjoys a reputation, in secular mainstream media and some Catholic circles, as a champion of dialogue. He calls for it almost weekly – sometimes more frequently than that – and has committed to stable dialogue with various partners both within and without the broad fold of Christianity on an institutional level.
Perhaps paradoxically, again, Pope Francis has made some significant progress with the canonically irregular traditionalist priestly Society of St. Pius X, founded by the schismatic Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre. He has rehabilitated once-suspect architects and leading proponents of liberation theology like Ernesto Cardenal and Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, who faced discipline under JPII not so much for their theological opinions as for their political activity, inter alia.
If you want to know what theological dialogue within the Catholic fold looks like under Francis, however, no picture will be complete that does not devote significant and detailed space to the purge of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, its juridical destruction and reconstitution as the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences.
There, Pope Francis acted with heavy-handedness that left academics in Rome and around the world pale and speechless, and sent a message heard far and wide about what happens when Roman or Rome-adjacent institutions displease the head man.
Perhaps the nine most terrifying words in Catholic circles could be: “I’m from the Vatican and I’m here to dialogue.”
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